Movie Review: ParaNorman
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Plot: A young boy who can talk to the dead must protect his city from a centuries old witch’s curse.
In 2006, a 3-D animated horror movie for kids called Monster House was made. It was about a demonic house that was attacking the neighbors and the brave group of kids who decided to stick up to it even though no one believed them. From my adult point of view, it was cute and a little clever but sadly not that memorable. In 2008, though, it scared a young girl named Salinger, who’s mother just happen to know the screenwriter, Dan Harmon. Harmon wrote back to Salinger and talked about the alienating Hollywood process that changed his script. Harmon told Salinger that he was dedicated to awarding those children’s bravery by showing that this world that didn’t make any sense that they entered actually did make sense in a weird way and as a result become much less scary. Harmon is known for making these rants about studios interfering with his work never holding back on who he thinks is at fault, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a point. Some of the best horror movies have inspired and awarded bravery, and the occasional twist ending that is more frightening than the whole movie works only because we think the protagonists are already awarded. ParaNorman feels like the solution to Monster House. It is not just about thrills and chills, but it is specifically about the nature of fear and it’s ability to take control of our lives and dictate our actions.
The film opens up with an awesomely retro grindhouse-style studio credit sequence. From the blood crimson logos to the Carpenter-esque synth score, ParaNorman brought Halloween a little early this year. This leads to our first visual treat, a homage to grainy, cheaply made zombie movies that always feel a dime a dozen. It is a promise from the filmmakers that they are horror movie buffs themselves, and they look forward to the ride that they are about to send us on despite the fact that they were using a children’s medium and rating.
We come to find out that the movie is being watched by Norman, the titular hero. He is a bit of an odd kid. He loves horror movies to an almost obsessive degree. His room is covered in all sorts of zombie paraphernalia. His grandmother also recently passed, but he is taking it very well. This is probably due to the fact that he can talk to ghosts, and she decided to stick around. Afterall, she promised to look after Norman. He has never been shy about letting people know about his abilities, but it has never been in his best interests. His parents worry about him constantly and are on his case all the time about it. Everyone at the school thinks he is a freak. Only another fellow freak (who is simply considered a freak due to his weight issues) even takes the time to get to know Norman.
The movie takes place in Blithe Hollow, MA, a stand-in for the real life Salem famous for its witch trials. The town has a gothic yet Smalltown, USA appearance cheapened by the town’s attempts at cashing in on the witch lore. Witches of all shapes and sizes can be seen around town trying to sell local merch and services. It also has a really great mythology. One day, 7 of the founding citizens of Blithe Hollow sentence a witch to execution. Before her death, she curses these 7 people to eventually awaken from the dead. Norman learns that the curse is real and his estranged (very strange) uncle has been keeping the curse at bay this whole time. His uncle can also see and talk to the dead. It appears that this gift has been passed down generation to generation leading all the way back to that witch that cursed the city ion the first place. His uncle is about to die though, and he needs to pass the legacy on. Unfortunately, Norman embraces his destiny a little too late, and the crap hits the fan. It becomes a race from the zombies to the witch’s grave to delay the curse another year.
ParaNorman‘s greatest strength is how clever it is at keeping its PG-rating. For a horror movie to have no gore seems sacrilegious nowadays, but when you are dealing with a kooky bunch of zombies, dismembered limbs become punchlines, while the ticking clock provides for the thrills. Bugs, trees, and storm clouds are manipulated in such a way to take the place of all the viscera that other horror directors fill the screen with, but these things would be nothing without the colorful and likable characters that the voice actors and animators were able to bring to life. Kodi Smit-McPhee (Norman) and Tucker Albrizzi (Neil) had really great chemistry. Smit-McPhee dealt with some very complex emotions that would come and go very naturally while Albrizzi was such a great comedic but loyal sidekick. The rest of the cast were very memorable and over the top in true B-movie fashion, but it was Leslie Mann as Norman’s mother that stood out from the adults. She was very under the top (if there is such a thing). She seemed to have all the best lines even though she was clearly never really listened to and delivered them with the kind of enthusiasm someone might when they know they are never being listened to.
This is all working to get back to what I was saying at the very beginning. This movie is all about the nature of fear. Fear has the ability to change us on an individual level. Most of us go through the day believing that, besides a few exceptions, we are basically all very similar. So when someone who looks/talks/acts/etc differently, we tend to throw them under the bus and step back into line rather than try and understand them. That pack mentality is so strong in our current culture that it has completely taken over the curiosity and search for knowledge that humanity used to be so proud of. This is mirrored in the execution of the witch which completely subverts our expectations on that old trope and delivers something so tragic and depressing, made even more tragic and depressing due to the fact that it could have happened at some point in history.
Many might think that ParaNorman is a weird movie to release during the summer, afterall it seems tailor made for Halloween. Yet, ParaNorman definitely has just as much if not more in common with the summer blockbusters than the cheap horror flare saved for October. It is a visually stunning thrill ride that is chock full of charm and cleverness. The cherry on top is that it actually has something to say about itself. The message isn’t always so subtle, but that can be forgiven since the message is handled so gingerly with kid gloves that it comes close to be stupifyingly brilliant.